Railroad Tie Dimensions Guide – Find Out Here!

what are the dimensions of a railroad tie

Did you know that railroad ties, also known as crossties or sleepers, play a crucial role in supporting railway tracks and ensuring smooth train operations? These unassuming objects have a significant impact on the safety and stability of the entire rail infrastructure. However, not all railroad ties are created equal. They come in various dimensions and materials to meet the specific needs of different tracks. In this article, we will explore the dimensions of railroad ties, the evolution of tie construction, and the different types of ties used in railway systems.

Key Takeaways:

  • Railroad ties, also known as crossties or sleepers, are an essential component of railway tracks.
  • These ties anchor the tracks, provide a solid base for trains, and come in different dimensions.
  • Wooden ties treated with creosote are the most common, but other materials like concrete and composites are also used.
  • Tie spacing and track appearance vary based on the type of track and its specific requirements.
  • Model railroaders can accurately represent tie spacing on their layouts with various techniques and tools.

The Evolution of Railroad Ties

In the early years of the railroad industry, stone blocks were used as ties, but they were heavy and unsuitable for soft ground. Wooden planks became the preferred choice for ties, with advances in tie construction leading to uniform dimensions. Today, railroad ties are still primarily made of wood, but larger and thicker. Other materials, such as concrete and composite, are also used. The choice of material depends on factors like cost, strength, and longevity.

A Brief History

Initially, the use of stone blocks as ties posed challenges due to their weight and instability on softer ground. However, wooden planks emerged as a more feasible option, providing a sturdy base for railroad tracks. As the industry advanced, improvements were made in tie construction, resulting in uniform dimensions that enhanced track stability and overall performance. Despite the introduction of alternative materials, wood continues to dominate the industry.

Wooden Ties

Type of TieDescription
Hardwood TiesTraditional and widely used due to cost and longevity.
Softwood TiesLess common but used in specific applications.

Other Materials

Type of TieDescription
Concrete TiesOffer cost-effectiveness and durability.
Composite TiesConstructed from recycled materials and provide extended lifespan.

With advancements in railroad technology and industry demands, materials such as concrete and composite have found their place alongside traditional wooden ties. These alternative materials offer unique advantages, including improved longevity and reduced maintenance requirements. However, wood remains a preferred choice due to its balance of cost, strength, and familiarity within the industry.

Types of Railroad Ties

When it comes to railroad ties, there are several types to choose from, each with its own unique characteristics and benefits. Let’s explore the most common types: wooden ties, concrete ties, steel ties, and plastic composite ties.

1. Wooden Ties:

Wooden ties are traditionally made of hardwoods such as oak, cherry, and walnut. They have been the go-to choice for many years due to their affordability and longevity. Wood ties offer natural flexibility and are relatively easy to install and maintain.

2. Concrete Ties:

Concrete ties have gained popularity for their durability, cost-effectiveness, and ability to carry higher axle weights. They require less maintenance compared to wooden ties and are resistant to rot and decay. Concrete ties provide a stable and long-lasting foundation for railroad tracks.

3. Steel Ties:

Steel ties, also known as plate or T-section ties, are commonly used on secondary or lower-speed lines. They are formed from pressed steel and offer advantages such as easy installation on existing ballast beds, recyclability, and reduced ballast requirements. Steel ties are a cost-effective and sturdy alternative for specific railroad applications.

4. Plastic Composite Ties:

Plastic composite ties are made from recycled plastic resins and rubber materials. They are lightweight, durable, and environmentally friendly. Composite ties provide excellent resistance to rot, insect attack, and weather conditions. They are increasingly being used in various rail applications, offering a longer lifespan and improved track performance.

Choosing the right type of tie depends on various factors such as traffic volume, speed, maintenance requirements, and cost-effectiveness. Wooden ties are popular for their affordability and natural flexibility. Concrete ties offer durability and require less maintenance. Steel ties are suitable for specific applications and provide a cost-effective solution. Lastly, plastic composite ties offer environmental benefits along with a longer service life.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the characteristics and advantages of each type of tie:

Type of Railroad TieMaterialAdvantages
Wooden TiesHardwoods (oak, cherry, walnut)Affordability, longevity, natural flexibility
Concrete TiesConcreteDurability, cost-effectiveness, resistance to rot and decay
Steel TiesPressed steelEasy installation, recyclability, reduced ballast requirements
Plastic Composite TiesRecycled plastic resins and rubberLightweight, durability, resistance to rot and weather conditions

Tie Spacing and Track Appearance

tie spacing and track appearance

Tie spacing and track appearance play a significant role in the design and functionality of railroad tracks. Depending on the type of track, tie spacing varies to accommodate different traffic volumes and speeds. This section explores the tie spacing and track appearance characteristics of main tracks, branch tracks, and siding tracks.

Main Track

Main tracks are the lifelines of the railway system, carrying heavy traffic at higher speeds. To ensure stability and durability, main tracks have the closest tie spacing compared to other track types. Typically, the tie spacing on main tracks is around 20 inches. This close spacing provides a solid foundation for the rails and helps maintain track alignment even under heavy loads.

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Branch Track

Branch tracks serve as secondary lines that connect to the main tracks. While they also have a significant traffic volume, the tie spacing on branch tracks is slightly wider compared to main tracks. On average, the tie spacing on branch tracks falls between 21 and 24 inches. This slightly wider spacing accommodates the lower traffic volume and provides a balance between stability and cost-effectiveness.

Siding Track

Siding tracks are shorter tracks that branch off from the main tracks and are primarily used for train storage, freight loading/unloading, or passing slower trains. These tracks have a unique tie spacing requirement, which sometimes matches or exceeds that of adjacent main tracks. The tie spacing on siding tracks is optimized to support the movement of trains with minimal disruptions and ensure safe operations.

It’s important to note that tie spacing is not the only factor that contributes to track appearance. Variation in ballast quality, rail size, and the overall maintenance of the track also influence its appearance. Together, these factors help differentiate between main tracks, branch tracks, and siding tracks and contribute to the overall functionality and aesthetics of the railroad system.

Tie Spacing Comparison
Track TypeTie Spacing
Main TrackAround 20 inches
Branch TrackBetween 21-24 inches
Siding TrackEqual to or higher than adjacent main tracks

Factors Affecting Tie Spacing

Tie spacing plays a crucial role in the stability and durability of railroad tracks, and it is influenced by several key factors. These factors include track demand, engineering standards, and maintenance requirements.

Main tracks, which typically have a higher volume of train traffic, require closer tie spacing to ensure stability and minimize the risk of track movement. This closer tie spacing helps distribute the weight of the passing trains more evenly and reduces the strain on individual ties.

On the other hand, slow-speed tracks experience less stress and strain compared to main tracks. As a result, these tracks can have wider tie spacing without compromising their overall integrity. Wider tie spacing in slow-speed tracks can also help reduce maintenance requirements and associated costs.

For sidings and spurs, which are used for lower-speed operations and to reach specific shippers or customers, tie spacing may be similar to or wider than adjacent tracks. This ensures compatibility with the neighboring sections and allows for smooth transitions between different track types.

It’s important to note that tie spacing is regulated by engineering standards to ensure safe and reliable track performance. These standards take into account factors such as track geometry, load distribution, and track maintenance practices. Compliance with these standards helps maintain consistent tie spacing across the railroad network and ensures the overall integrity of the track system.

By considering the factors of track demand, engineering standards, and maintenance requirements, railroad operators can determine the appropriate tie spacing for different sections of their tracks. This helps optimize track performance, enhance safety, and minimize maintenance needs.

Factors Affecting Tie SpacingKey Considerations
Track DemandHigher traffic volume requires closer tie spacing for stability
Engineering StandardsTie spacing regulations ensure safe and reliable track performance
Maintenance RequirementsTie spacing may vary based on maintenance practices and cost-effectiveness

Fig. 1: Factors affecting tie spacing in railroad tracks.

Understanding and considering these factors is crucial for maintaining optimal tie spacing, ensuring the longevity and reliability of railroad tracks.

Tie Spacing Measurements

actual tie spacing on railroad tracks

Tie spacing measurements on railroad tracks can vary depending on various factors, including maintenance practices and local conditions. While the average tie spacing for main tracks is around 21-22 inches, there are exceptions to this norm. Some track sections may have tie spacing as close as 16 inches or as wide as 25 inches. It is important to note that tie spacing is not always uniform throughout the track, with some ties skewed from being perpendicular to the rail.

These variations in tie spacing can impact the overall appearance and function of the track. Different tie spacing measurements contribute to the visual uniqueness of main tracks, branch tracks, and siding tracks.

In order to give you a visual reference, here is a table showcasing the tie spacing measurements for different types of tracks:

Track TypeTie Spacing Measurements (in inches)
Main TrackApproximately 21-22
Branch TrackBetween 21-24
Siding TrackVaries, sometimes same as or higher than adjacent main tracks

This table provides a brief overview of tie spacing measurements for different types of tracks. However, it is important to note that actual tie spacing on specific tracks may deviate from these average measurements based on unique circumstances.

Here is an image that visually represents the importance of tie spacing measurements on railroad tracks:

Modeling Tie Spacing

Modeling Tie Spacing

When it comes to creating model railroads, achieving accurate tie spacing is essential for capturing the realism of different types of tracks. By recreating the specific tie spacing, modelers can accurately represent the characteristics of main tracks, branch tracks, or even 19th-century logging tracks. Different track manufacturers offer options that correspond to various tie spacing measurements.

Atlas code 55 track is a popular option for modeling main tracks. With eight ties per inch, it closely represents a real-life tie spacing of around **20 inches**. This tie spacing provides the right level of detail for capturing the appearance of heavily trafficked main tracks.

For those looking to create a layout that mimics 19th-century logging tracks or other scenarios with wider tie spacing, Peco code 55 track is a suitable choice. With approximately 5.5 ties per inch, Peco code 55 represents a tie spacing of around **29 inches**, offering a more accurate portrayal of historical track designs.

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While using prefabricated track options like Atlas and Peco is convenient, some modelers prefer the flexibility of hand laying their track to achieve specific tie spacing measurements. Hand laying track allows for customization and can be a rewarding process for those seeking complete control over their model railroad’s authenticity.

Regardless of the method chosen, accurately modeling tie spacing adds an extra layer of detail and realism to model railroads, allowing enthusiasts to bring their layouts to life.

Track ManufacturerTie SpacingCorresponding Real-life Measurement
Atlas code 55 trackEight ties per inchAround 20 inches
Peco code 55 track5.5 ties per inchAround 29 inches

Tie Spacing Options for Model Railroaders

tie spacing options for model railroaders

When it comes to creating realistic model railroad layouts, tie spacing plays a crucial role in achieving authenticity. Model railroaders have several options for achieving different tie spacing on their layouts, allowing them to accurately represent the tie spacing of different track types. One popular option among modelers is using Fast Tracks tie jigs.

Fast Tracks offers a variety of tie jigs in different tie spacings, catering to the needs of model railroaders. For main tracks, where trains pass at higher speeds, the tie spacing is typically around 20 inches. Fast Tracks provides a tie jig specifically designed for this spacing, enabling modelers to lay ties with precision.

Branchline tracks, which are generally used for lower traffic volume and slower speeds, have a slightly wider tie spacing. Fast Tracks offers a tie jig with a spacing of 22 inches, allowing model railroaders to accurately represent this type of track.

Siding tracks, used for storage or as secondary lines, often have tie spacings that are the same as or wider than adjacent main tracks. Fast Tracks provides a tie jig with a spacing of 24 inches for modelers who want to recreate the tie spacing of siding tracks.

These tie jigs from Fast Tracks make it easier for model railroaders to lay ties with the desired spacing and introduce variation in position, resulting in a more realistic representation of different track types. Whether it’s a bustling main line or a quiet branchline, modelers can now accurately replicate the tie spacing for a truly authentic layout.

Concrete Ties in Modern Railroads

Concrete ties are gaining traction in modern railroads, particularly in Europe and Asia. These ties offer several advantages over traditional wooden ties, making them a popular choice for many railroads.

One of the key benefits of concrete ties is their cost-effectiveness. Compared to wooden ties, concrete ties are cheaper to produce, resulting in potential cost savings for rail infrastructure projects.

Additionally, concrete ties are able to carry higher loads, making them suitable for heavy freight trains and high-speed passenger trains. Their superior load-bearing capacity contributes to the efficient and reliable operation of modern railroads.

Another advantage of concrete ties is their longer service life. Unlike wooden ties that may deteriorate over time due to weather conditions and insect attacks, concrete ties have a longer lifespan. This longevity reduces the frequency of tie replacement, resulting in lower maintenance costs for railroads.

Concrete ties also provide better track geometry retention, ensuring that the tracks remain aligned and stable. This characteristic contributes to the overall safety and reliability of the rail infrastructure.

However, it’s important to note that concrete ties lack the flexibility of wood or composite ties. This can limit their application in certain situations where flexibility is required, such as curved tracks or areas with significant ground movement.

In summary, concrete ties offer several advantages for modern railroads, including cost-effectiveness, higher load-bearing capacity, longer service life, and improved track geometry retention. While they may lack flexibility compared to other tie materials, their overall strength and durability make them a preferred choice for many railroads.

Advantages of Concrete Ties

1. Cost-effectiveness: Concrete ties are cheaper to produce, resulting in potential cost savings for rail infrastructure projects.

2. Higher load-bearing capacity: Concrete ties can carry heavier loads, making them suitable for heavy freight and high-speed passenger trains.

3. Longer service life: Concrete ties have a longer lifespan compared to wooden ties, reducing the frequency of replacement and maintenance costs.

4. Better track geometry retention: Concrete ties help maintain track alignment and stability, enhancing overall safety and reliability.

Steel Ties in Railroad Construction

Steel ties play a vital role in railroad construction, particularly in specific situations such as secondary or lower-speed lines. These ties are formed from pressed steel and have trough-shaped sections, providing strength and durability in various railway applications. Steel ties offer a range of advantages that make them a suitable choice for specific projects.

  • Easy Installation: Thanks to their design, steel ties can be easily installed on existing ballast beds. This provides a cost-effective solution and minimizes construction time, allowing for efficient rail installation.
  • Recyclability: Steel ties are highly recyclable, making them an environmentally friendly option for railroad construction. By utilizing recycled steel materials, these ties help reduce the demand for new resources and contribute to sustainable practices.
  • Reduced Ballast Requirements: Steel ties require less ballast compared to other types of ties, such as wooden ties. This reduction translates into cost savings and a more efficient use of materials.

One notable application of steel ties is in turnouts, also known as switches or points. Turnouts allow trains to change tracks and navigate railway junctions smoothly. Given the need for increased maneuverability and durability in these areas, steel ties provide a practical solution to the challenges posed by long timber ties.

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Steel ties offer economical benefits without compromising on strength and load-bearing capacity. They can handle heavy loads and maintain track stability, making them suitable for various railroad applications requiring enhanced durability and performance.

“Steel ties provide a cost-effective solution and environmental benefits while maintaining strength, durability, and load-bearing capabilities in railroad construction.”

Comparison of Tie Materials

Tie MaterialAdvantages
Wooden TiesCost-effective, widely available
Concrete TiesHigher load-carrying capacity, longer service life
Steel TiesEasy installation, recyclability, reduced ballast requirements
Plastic Composite TiesLong service life, impervious to rot and insects

Plastic Composite Ties

Plastic composite ties are an innovative and eco-friendly alternative to traditional railroad ties. These ties are manufactured using recycled plastic resins and rubber, making them a sustainable choice for rail applications.

One of the key advantages of composite ties is their longer service life compared to wooden ties. They are impervious to rot and insect attack, ensuring durability and longevity. Furthermore, composite ties can be recycled at the end of their life cycle, reducing waste and promoting environmental stewardship.

Composite ties are utilized in various rail applications, including underground mining operations, industrial zones, and densely populated areas. They offer several benefits such as better distribution of forces, reduction of vibrations, and improved damping properties. These characteristics contribute to a smoother and quieter ride for trains, enhancing passenger comfort and minimizing the impact on nearby communities.

In addition, plastic composite ties provide a stable and reliable track foundation. They have excellent resistance to weathering, moisture, and temperature fluctuations, ensuring consistent performance in diverse environments. These ties also contribute to improved track stability and reduced maintenance requirements, resulting in cost savings for rail operators.

The use of plastic composite ties demonstrates a commitment to sustainability and resource conservation. By utilizing recycled materials, rail industry stakeholders can minimize their carbon footprint and contribute to a greener future. As the demand for environmentally friendly solutions grows, composite ties are gaining popularity in the industry and becoming a preferred choice for rail infrastructure projects.

Advantages of Composite Ties:

  • Longer service life than wooden ties
  • Impervious to rot and insect attack
  • Recyclable and environmentally friendly
  • Better distribution of forces
  • Reduction of vibrations
  • Improved damping properties
  • Stable and reliable track foundation
  • Resistance to weathering, moisture, and temperature fluctuations
  • Contribution to improved track stability
  • Reduced maintenance requirements


In conclusion, the dimensions of railroad ties vary depending on the type of track and the materials used. While wood remains the most common choice, concrete, steel, and plastic composite ties have their own advantages. Tie spacing and track appearance differ for main, branch, and siding tracks, with main tracks having the closest tie spacing.

For model railroaders, accurately representing tie spacing is possible using various techniques, such as utilizing tie jigs or hand laying. These methods allow for customization and the ability to recreate the tie spacing of different track types.

The use of concrete, steel, and composite ties in railroad construction depends on factors like traffic volume, speed, and cost-effectiveness. Each material offers its own benefits, addressing specific needs in the rail industry.

Overall, railroad ties play a crucial role in providing support and stability for the rail infrastructure. They ensure the safe and efficient operation of trains while maintaining the integrity of the tracks. Understanding tie dimensions, spacing, and the different material options is essential in railway design and maintenance.


What are the dimensions of a railroad tie?

Typical dimensions for railroad ties are about 8-10 inches thick and 8-10 feet long.

What are the standard sizes for railroad ties?

The common hardwood tie, treated with creosote, can last 30-40 years. Wood remains the preferred choice due to its cost and longevity.

What are the different types of railroad ties?

The most common types of railroad ties are wooden, concrete, steel, and plastic composite.

How does tie spacing and track appearance vary?

Tie spacing and track appearance vary based on the type of track, with main tracks having the closest tie spacing and siding tracks having the least.

What factors affect tie spacing?

Factors affecting tie spacing include track demand, engineering standards, and maintenance requirements.

How do tie spacing measurements vary on railroad tracks?

Tie spacing measurements can vary, with average measurements for main tracks around 21-22 inches, although exceptions do exist.

How can model railroaders accurately represent tie spacing on their layouts?

Model railroaders can achieve different tie spacing by using tie jigs or custom hand laying.

What are the advantages of using concrete ties in modern railroads?

Concrete ties are cheaper, able to carry higher loads, and have a longer service life compared to wooden ties. They also require less maintenance.

When are steel ties used in railroad construction?

Steel ties are used in specific situations, such as on secondary or lower-speed lines, and offer advantages like easy installation and recyclability.

What are the benefits of using plastic composite ties?

Plastic composite ties offer a longer service life than wooden ties, are impervious to rot and insect attack, and can be recycled.

What is the role of railroad ties in providing support and stability for the rail infrastructure?

Railroad ties play a crucial role in anchoring the track, providing a solid base for trains to pass over, and supporting the rails.

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Baron Cooke has been writing and editing for 7 years. He grew up with an aptitude for geometry, statistics, and dimensions. He has a BA in construction management and also has studied civil infrastructure, engineering, and measurements. He is the head writer of measuringknowhow.com

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